I arrive in Agra on the train from New Delhi in the early hours of the evening and grab a tuk-tuk from the station to my hotel. On the way I ask the driver how much it would cost for a day shuttling me between the sights of the city. He thinks that 1000 rupees would cover it. At £10 for a day’s travel, I’m thinking that’s a bargain, so I ask if he would like to do that tomorrow. He says that he has plans, but that his uncle would do it. I arrange to meet him out the front of the hotel at 7am for an early start, and then head in to the hotel.
I’m staying at the ITC Mughal using points and considering the exhausting day I’ve just had, plus the early start the following day, I elect to grab an early night. There is the usual consternation with the visa (see Delhi) but, as usual, the reality of being a long way from the airport in Delhi makes the point moot.
In the morning I get room service breakfast and eat it in my breakfast nook. It’s a lovely dhosa with a curry and selection of yoghurty things. I figure I’m safe with food from a five star hotel!
I head out past security to the roadside where I arranged to meet the driver. Sure enough there is an older guy who admits to being Aslan (“like the lion”), my driver for the day. I tell him of the things I want to see and we head off into the day.
The streets are relatively clear save for herds of cows and we zip along making good time. I have no idea how long I’ll be at Agra Fort but Aslan doesn’t mind – he points to the carpark area where he will meet me afterwards and settles in for a snooze. I head across the main road and find myself at the gates of an impressive fort. Entrance costs ₹550 (£5.50) and is worth the money – the complex is very large. I find it strangely unmoving though – maybe a guide would have been a good idea, but with nothing to connect the location with contextual history, it’s just a large fort commanding the river and main road crossing the river.
After spending a few hours wandering through the fort I head back to the carpark area and find Aslan. “Baby Taj?” I ask and he hesitates, before nodding. I think nothing of it until we hit the traffic crossing the River Yumuna. I trace the route afterwards on Google Maps – 3km (2 miles) – takes over half an hour – if it wasn’t for the heat I could have walked it! The funniest parts for me are the potholes – I wonder how people don’t have broken axles more often – and the Hare Krishnas with an enclave under the bridge.
In London the Hare Krishnas dance and sing accompanied by guitars, drums and castanets and try to foist books on you as you walk by. Here in Agra they blare dance music at deafening volumes from behind the sort of walls that gangs erect to hide from prying eyes. It somehow matches the heat which is starting to peak. One thing about the tuk-tuk is that when it’s moving the passing air cools you down. When the traffic is bumper to bumper it’s a different matter though!
Baby Taj (Tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah)
The mausoleum is tiny and after taking it in, I spend some time staring at the river from the site. Garbage litters the banks while cattle wander along along the embankments.
Aslan has been stewing while I was inside – apparently he had wanted to do the Baby Taj on the way to Mehtab Bahg later in the afternoon to avoid the traffic. He hadn’t made that clear at all and I agree that spending some time back at the hotel for lunch would be a good way to spend the time before the evening – apparently the view from Mehtab Bahg towards Taj Mahal is quite delightful around dusk. By the time we get back to the hotel there’s about three hours before we’d need to head back. Which is great because I have built up quite the appetite.
I have time to soak in the surrounds of the hotel – it’s on a good chunk of land and there are well manicured lawns with a train randomly parked in the garden. No track except what its sitting on. I’m sure there’s a story there somewhere. They also have a delightful love-seat on the roof with views to the Taj in the haze. The heat is beyond bearable now so I head back to my room and have a cool shower.
It’s tempting to have a swim, but I all I want to do is have something to eat and maybe a nap. I order a biriyani with a fruit salad and am glad when it comes with a reika – a cooling yoghurt based dish. When my meal arrives I point to the colourful items in the small dish just next to the can and enquire as to what they are. The waiter smiles says and states that they are an assortment of pickles. I later learn the hard way that he should have said “an assortment of pickles and chilis” but apart from that the food is delicious.
The shadows are beginning to lengthen and I head out to meet Aslan again. He seems in better spirits (maybe he had a nap too?) and we head back to the bridge, making better time than we did earlier. Mehteb Bahg is a sprawling expanse of green sitting on the north bank of the Yamuna River. It is directly opposite the Taj Mahal and the sunlight is supposed to bathe the white stone of the Taj with a rose glow as the sun goes down.
I’ve got over an hour before dusk, so find a nice spot on the wall and look around me and take a few shots. There are a few tourists around, some locals, a few goats – the vibe is very rural idyllic. A small group of Asian tourists sit on the wall maybe three metres to my right and I smile at them. They smile back but don’t try talking so I leave them to their chatting and giggling.
A young couple sit beside me to the left and I idly strike up a conversation. They’re Dutch and have been in India for quite some time. Turns out that Kelly is a trainee doctor come to do some practical experience in the north of the country and Joel is an enthusiastic traveller with an eye for a good photo. They’d also heard about the “magical light at dusk” at Mehteb Bahg and so thought they’d come down for a look.
The shores of the Yamuna become more congested when a couple of tour buses disgorge their camera-toting tourists closer to sunset, so the air is soon full of the chatter of many different languages. It’s a pleasant scene but the colour changes are very subtle at best. I enjoy the calmness and generally friendly vibe of a bunch of fellow travellers all at one place for the same reason.
I take some shots and then discover that there isn’t much post-sunset light and it’s gotten very dark very quickly. Guards come along and let people know its time to leave, so I swap FaceBook details with my new friends and head back across the gardens to the carpark and attempt to find Aslan in the dark.
I pass the huge buses parked on the side of the road and get to the area where I had arranged to meet Aslan and manage to locate him. He smiles as I express surprise at the number of tourists that end up at Mehteb Bahg. The locals call them “helicopter tourists” because they fly in and the then fly out without enriching the locals. I guess my surprise is because I was there before the crowds arrived so naively assumed that Mehteg Bahg wasn’t so well known.
We drive down the very dark streets when there is an almighty clang on the metal frame of Aslan’s tuk-tuk. It seems that helicopter tourists aren’t liked very much – enough for someone to throw a stone at me in the tuk-tuk! I’m guessing throwing stones at the buses isn’t the same. I was just lucky whatever they threw hit the heavy iron frame of the tuk-tuk.
We make it back to the hotel without further incident and I arrange to meet Aslan at dawn the next morning to visit the Taj Mahal before returning o the hotel, paying Aslan and getting picked up by my driver for the trip to Rhanthambor.
I’m up at dawn to see the Taj. I wanted to see it from Mehteb Bahg as well as visit it at dawn, which meant I had to sacrifice the “big reveal” of seeing it for the first time at dawn, merely because that’s the way the days had panned out. I was so tired on arrival in Agra that I didn’t want to head out so early on day one. In retrospect that might have been the better option – allowing the maximum impact of seeing the Taj for the first time, while still enjoying it bathed in both sunrise and sunset.
I certainly didn’t regret the way I had done it though. And I must admit it was kind of exciting having the building come into view as I passed through the Great Gate (Darwaza i rauza). Bam! There it is! Looking every bit as gorgeous in person as you’ve seen it in pictures or from the other side of the river the night before.
I take a million pictures and wander around the site before I realise I really have seen it from every angle. It’s about 9am and its starting to get full already with tour groups of women in saris arriving with armed soldiers. I’m mostly ignorant of Indian politics, religion and castes so have no idea why there’d be such a need of security. I head back out to the agreed upon meeting area and get Aslan to take me back to the hotel.
When it comes to pay Aslan I pay him 2000 rupees – double what his nephew had said, because he had been a good driver. He looks disappointed and starts to complain, mentioning that I made him go over the bridge in rush hour and that he had taken me back to the hotel during the day. I’m torn. On one hand 1000 rupees was probably an unrealistically low amount, but I had doubled it.
I agree to throw another 500 rupees in and he visibly brightens and shows me his guest book. He then tells me something heart breaking. He says that he gets all his passengers to write something in his guest book. But that he can’t read. So he can’t enjoy the kind things that people say about him. And he can’t tell if people are unkind. And so when he tries to use it as a sales tactic he won’t know if he’s showing good reviews or bad.
I bid Aslan farewell and head into the hotel to check out.
Would I go back?
I wouldn’t go back alone – for me Agra and the Taj are one and done – but I would go back if someone I was with hadn’t seen the Taj.